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9 July 2009

Off with their heads

From Wat Tyler swilling beer in front of Richard II to chants of “God save the poor and down with Ge

By Ted Vallance

In a recent poll conducted by Republic, the campaign for an elected head of state, 62 per cent of respondents wanted royal finances to be open to full public scrutiny. At the very least, the renewed focus on royal expenses, with its obvious parallels to the furore over MPs’ claims, could stymie requests for an increase to the civil list. At worst, the timing of this debate, in the middle of a recession and in the wake of a serious crisis of confidence in our political institutions, threatens a repeat of the Queen’s “annus horribilis” of 1992.

The toe-curling (or rather toe-sucking) revelations of that year brought public respect for the monarchy to its lowest ebb for a century; the fire that engulfed Windsor Castle was an apt symbol for royal grandeur brought to ruin. In the aftermath of these disasters, commentators on both the left and the right rushed to pronounce the imminent death of the British monarchy. The post-1992 reforms to make the monarchy more relevant – a “people’s” Honours List, the opening of Buckingham Palace to the public and greater oversight of royal finances – seemingly served only to drain whatever substance remained from the beleaguered institution.

Yet, in spite of Charles’s messy divorce, the death of Diana and Prince Harry’s poor taste in fancy dress, the monarchy has survived. But the recovery of its fortunes does not indicate that Britain is a nation of ardent royalists, unquestioning in their loyalty to the Windsor dynasty. Rather, the persistence of the monarchy in 21st-century Britain has been achieved only by the near-complete submission of the Crown to the popular will.

The mistake that commentators in the mid-1990s made was to assume that the royal family’s then poor reputation reflected deeper changes in society. Conservative and republican writers alike believed that the Crown had been fundamentally undermined by a decade of Thatcherism, both as a political institution and as a cultural rallying point. Respect for the monarchy, it was said, had rested on a class-riven society dominated by codes of deference, a society that Thatcher’s government had torn asunder.

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However, the problem is that throughout British history due public deference to the Crown has often seemed in short supply. From Wat Tyler swilling his beer in front of Richard II in June 1381 to the Kentish fishermen who accompanied the captured James II to the privy in December 1688, British subjects have often failed to observe the niceties of royal protocol. High-profile instances of this kind can be accompanied by the thousands of cases of seditious speech and writing found in British legal records, demonstrating a plebeian hostility to the monarchy.

Denunciations of individual monarchs, such as the one by William Pennington in 1690 (he was accused of calling King William a “Dutch dog” and Queen Mary a “Dutch bitch”), or by John Harris in 1714, who said “God damn the Queen [Anne], she can kiss my arse”, are commonplace. Many of these outbursts openly threatened violence. In the revolutionary crisis of the 1790s, anonymous handbills were pasted up in Bath proclaiming “Peace and large bread or a king with no head”. Another from Wiltshire ended “God save the poor and down with George III”.

On the other hand, British history is filled with instances of monarchs who were lionised even by radical movements. The greatest example of this was Alfred the Great. The Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor painted an idyllic picture of Saxon England under the rule of Alfred, when the working day was strictly limited to eight hours and “there was neither lock nor bolt on any man’s door because there was no thief”. Many Chartists similarly believed, erroneously, that Queen Victoria was sympathetic to the cause of reform and had personally intervened to prevent the execution of John Frost, the leader of the Newport rising of 1839.

Yet the sheer level of hostility to some monarchs alone demonstrates that the “enchanted glass” (to use the writer Tom Nairn’s phrase) of royalty rarely cast an effective spell over the public. Few British dynasties can have expended more wealth and effort in maintaining the aura of regality than the Stuarts. The recent Tate Britain exhibition of Van Dyck’s work for the court offered a potent reminder of the energy and expense devoted to extolling Charles I’s kingly authority. But the imagery, powerful as it was, was not strong enough to dissuade the king’s own subjects from putting him on trial and executing him.

Monarchy was restored in 1660 and Charles II was vigorous in emphasising once more the magic of majesty, touching an estimated 100,000 of his subjects to cure them of “the King’s Evil” (scrofula). But barely three years after Charles’s death, the mystical veneer of Stuart monarchy had already worn thin, and James II was treated little better than a common criminal when captured on the run in December 1688.

F­rom the mid-18th to the late 19th century, the genetic lottery of hereditary succession threw up a series of deeply unpopular monarchs. “Prinny”, as the Prince Regent was known, became a target for fierce public anger. William Hone’s satire on British politics in the aftermath of Peterloo, The Political House that Jack Built (1819), portrayed the future George IV as the man “Who, to tricksters, and fools, leaves the State and its treasure/And, when Britain’s in tears, sails about at his pleasure”. When George IV finally died in 1830 (as a result of a diet that, according to the Duke of Wellington, included for breakfast a laudanum aperitif followed by a pigeon and steak pie and three-quarters of a bottle of Moselle), even the Times remarked that “never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King”.

William IV and Victoria fared better, but in the late 19th century the behaviour of Victoria’s son Albert Edward, the future Edward VII, was seen to threaten the whole institution of monarchy. “Tum tum”, as some of his friends called him, enjoyed good food and cigars, but it was mainly his sexual exploits that brought shame on the Saxe-Coburgs.

In 1861, shortly before he was due to be married, Albert Edward was caught sneaking the actress Nellie Clifden into his tent on an army camp on the Curragh, near Dublin. In 1870, the Prince of Wales was booed by the public when he was implicated in Sir Charles Mordaunt’s divorce case. Even in the 1890s, he was continuing to make headlines of the wrong kind with his infidelities and illegal gambling activities.

These public attacks constituted more than just the moral judgement of the crowd on royal gluttons and philanderers. Popular anger directed at particular monarchs was the legacy of a long-standing idea of “commonwealth” that placed service to the public good above loyalty to high-born individuals. This was the essence of Chartist praise for Alfred and Elizabeth I – these were supposedly monarchs whose first duty was always to the people and the well-being of the nation. This ideology was embedded in understandings of both British history and the operation of the British state. In popular histories of the nation, in contrast to elite “Whig” narratives that dwelt on the supposedly orderly progress achieved through events such as the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, pride of place was given to moments such as the Peasants’ Revolt, when the aristocracy was bypassed in favour of direct “negotiation” between the king and his subjects, or to the stirring legends of Robin Hood robbing the rich and giving to the poor.

The “commonwealth” ideal also incorporated a republican strain. Though out-and-out republicanism was only ever the political creed of a tiny minority, republican elements were long identified within the British constitution. This “monarchical republicanism”, to use the term coined by the great historian of Elizabethan England Patrick Collinson, was a “what works” doctrine of proto-New Labour political pragmatism. It posited that though monarchy was indeed the normal and traditional form of government in England, it could be replaced with republican forms when circumstances required (for example, the sudden death of a childless monarch such as Elizabeth I, who refused to name a successor).

At a local level, government was essentially free of monarchical interference, consisting of thousands of autonomous mini-republics, the parishes, often run by democratically elected, low-born office-holders. In Scotland, the position of the monarch was even more clearly that of a public trustee as a consequence of its more radical, Calvinist reformation. As Andrew Mel­ville, the 16th-century theologian, remarked to James VI (later James I of England), the king was but “God’s silly vassal”, an instrument to serve the godly nation and nothing more.

Monarchical republicanism was integral to the two greatest crises of the British monarchy: the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. It was during these two revolutions that the schemes for temporary English
republics first discussed by Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s minister, were put into effect. In 1649 parliament was much more interested in getting Charles I to abdicate so that he could be replaced by a Commons-vetted puppet king (probably his youngest son, Henry) than it was in permanently replacing the monarchy with a republic. It was Charles’s intransigence rather than revolutionary zeal that brought him to the scaffold. The parliamentarians’ intended solution in 1649 finally came to fruition in 1688-89. James II’s flight from the kingdom was followed by the rapid creation of a republican council constituting the interim government of the nation. The Convention Parliament summoned very shortly afterwards then offered the Crown to a Protestant candidate, William of Orange and his English wife, Mary.

The revolution of 1688-89 left a profound political legacy but not in the way usually understood. It did not create constitutional monarchy. All it really settled was that the royal succession was ultimately determined by parliament, not heredity. What it did not fix was the imbalances of power within the constitution. As the Levellers had recognised back in the 1640s, royal tyranny could swiftly be replaced by arbitrary parliamentary rule. The British monarchy’s powers, rather than being reduced, were simply appropriated by the Crown’s ministers. The royal prerogative over appointments, the gifting of honours and the waging of war became the preserve of a new form of unelected absolute ruler, the prime minister. This is the problem posed by the monarchy’s survival – not the perpetuation of a supposedly backward, forelock-tugging national culture, but the potential for abuse of political power that the Crown facilitates.

However, as 1649 proved, cutting off the “head” of the body politic did not leave it a bleeding lifeless corpse. That revolutionary moment, more than any other, demonstrates that for much of Britain’s history, rather than being captivated by the magnificence of monarchy, the Crown’s subjects have seen its rulers (to use the words of John Cook, prosecuting counsel at the trial of Charles I) as “but the people’s creatures”. There has been no better display of this popular assertiveness over the monarchy than in the most serious recent royal crisis, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.

With the help of Helen Mirren and Stephen Frears, Diana’s death has since become a public relations coup for Elizabeth II. But at the time it was an unmitigated disaster for the Windsors, in which the royal family seemed deeply out of step with public opinion. The Crown’s response was telling. Bullied by a public wallowing in grief that bordered on mass hysteria, the royal family was forced to override protocol and display the royal standard at half mast above the palace. The Queen was in effect made to return from Balmoral to London in order to share the nation’s pain. Diana’s funeral itself was a triumph for popular vulgarity over court etiquette, with Westminster Abbey transformed for the day into a mourning-dress-clad version of Live Aid. The same jarring populism characterised the Queen’s golden jubilee in 2002, complete with the guitarist Brian May playing “God Save the Queen” on the roof of Buckingham Palace.

The monarchy still appears to be a British political institution with a great deal of popular support: more than two million people watched the “highlights” of Trooping the Colour on 13 June. But the House of Windsor now survives only at the sufferance of a general public that has little interest in history, tradition or protocol.

The negative arguments used by monarchists for retaining the institution highlight the present precarious fate of the royal family. The connection of royal spending with the expenses furore points up the pitfalls of a familiar monarchist refrain – that we are better with a hereditary head of state than the likely elected alternatives. Many will certainly have thought twice about deselecting their chiselling, venal representatives when it appeared that the alternative was Michael Winner or Esther Rantzen MP. The same line of argument operates reasonably well when the head of state is a nice old lady who has wisely learned to say little more than “What do you do?” and “Did you come far?”

But the thought of President Branson might be less appalling when the alternative is King Charles III. Just as they have done in the past, the British public may then decide that a republic, not a monarchy, is “what works” best.

Ted Vallance’s “A Radical History of Britain: Visionaries, Rebels and Revolutionaries, the Men and Women Who Fought for Our Freedoms” is newly published by Little, Brown (£25)

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